10 / 4 / 2024

A brief history of criminal justice in the Northern Rivers of NSW

Today, the Northern Rivers region of NSW has a population of approximately 316 thousand residents. It is comprised of the Local Government Areas of Tweed Shire, Byron Shire, Lismore City, Kyogle, Ballina Shire and the Richmond and Clarence Valleys. The Cape Byron headland in Byron Bay is the easternmost point of mainland Australia.

Beyond abundant natural beauty showcased by numerous world-renowned national parks and natural attractions, the area has strong industry led by the agricultural, construction, health care and education sectors.

The region has been occupied by indigenous Australians for at least 22,000 years and remains home to the Bundjalung and Arakwal people.


In May 1770, (then) Lieutenant James Cook sailed past the coast of Evans Head. While the HMS Endeavour did not land in the area, Cape Byron and Mount Warning were sighted and assigned the Europeans names which are still used today.

Post colonisation, early policing in New South Wales was comparatively informal when compared against modern structures and systems. This was especially so in rural areas or the ‘frontiers’ outside of Sydney. Policing was an activity largely left to armed private citizens.

From the early 1800’s, Justices of the Peace would appoint persons to act as Bench Police or ‘Benchers’ to assist maintaining public order. The European population outside of Sydney was migratory and widely dispersed. Given the penal nature of the colony, many convicts were later appointed as Constables, with little training or supervision. The disparity of men to women amongst the settlers was roughly ten to one.

It was not until 1828 that the entrance to the Richmond River was discovered and explored by European settlers.

While details and record keeping were often scant, deadly interracial clashes amongst the Indigenous population and early settlers were common in the region. When tensions rose, groups instituted to protect settlers such as the Mounted Police and Border Police, were deployed from areas further south in an attempt to restore order. Numerous mass murders of both Indigenous and European Australians occurring in the area prior to the mid-nineteenth century.

Perhaps most notorious of these deadly events is the 1828 Myall Creek massacre in which at least thirty Indigenous Australian’s were killed. From a legal perspective, the event is one of exceptional significance as it resulted in the only successful prosecution in the nation’s history brought against Australian settlers for the massacre of Indigenous Australians. Seven of the massacre’s perpetrators were detained, prosecuted and found guilty following two trials held at the Supreme Court of NSW. Following conviction, the men were later hung for their crimes. Local station manager William Hobbs and local police superintendent Thomas Foster are credited with initiating the investigation.

By 1839, orders were made and disseminated to Major Owen Gorman, the last commandant who oversaw the closure of the Moreton Bay penal settlement (located in modern day Brisbane), to hold an enquiry into any violence resulting in Indigenous deaths in the Northern Rivers region and to furnish copies to the Attorney General for review.

In 1841, Oliver Fry was appointed the first commissioner of Crown Lands for what was then described as the Clarence Squatting District, incorporating the Clarence, Richmond and Tweed Valleys. The area was rapidly populated thereafter by red cedar lumbermen and pastoralists. So profitable was the cutting and sale of red cedar that it became colloquially known as ‘red gold’.

In 1962, the Police Regulation Act was passed by the colonial Parliament, amalgamating all existing police forces into the singular NSW Police Force. At the time, there were approximately 800 active policemen in the state.

At the turn of the century, the region became increasingly celebrated as an agricultural centre with fertile soil capable of supporting prosperous dairy farms. This led to a wave of new settlers from across the country.

As the Northern Rivers region continued to grow, prosper and attract a larger permanent population, so too did the expansion of government services which included a more permanent police presence. Considerable expense was invested in permanent Court houses with accompanying police stations and watch houses built to enforce law and order in the rapidly developing region.

Police Stations

One such example is the Alstonville Police Station building, which has been providing an enduring service to the town since 1902 and is still operating today. The opening of the station followed shortly after the establishment of the Federal Hotel in 1901. So popular was the hotel as a local drinking hole, it gave rise to a need to greater protect residents and discourage antisocial behaviour in the area.

The Tweed Heads Police Station was established in 1910 and was originally located on Recreation Street. The current station based on Wharf Street opened in 2017.

Today, the region is serviced by the Richmond Police District and the Tweed-Byron Police District Area Commands. The Tweed Heads, Byron and Lismore stations operate on a 24-hour basis.

Other stations operating in the region include:

  • Ballina Police Station
  • Bangalow Police Station
  • Bonalbo Police Station
  • Brunswick Heads Police Station
  • Casino Police Station
  • Coraki Police Station
  • Evans Head Police Station
  • Kingscliff Police Station
  • Kyogle Police Station
  • Mullumbimby Police Station
  • Murwillumbah Police Station
  • Nimbin Police Station
  • Tabulam Police Station
  • Wardell Police Station
  • Woodburn Police Station


Ballina Court House was built in 1867 on the site of the former post office. The building was burnt down in 1881 and replaced with its present structure in 1882.

The Lismore Court house building, which is still in use today, was constructed in 1883. The District Court for the Northern Rivers region sits permanently at Lismore, with the Supreme Court of NSW also sitting at the same location on occasion.

Specialist Children’s Courts also sit at the same location as many Local Courts in the area.

Courts sitting in the region include:

  • Ballina Local Court
  • Byron Bay Local Court
  • Casino Local Court
  • Grafton Local and District Courts
  • Kyogle Local Court
  • Lismore Local and District Courts
  • Mullumbimby Local Court
  • Murwillumbah Local Court
  • Tweed Heads Local Court

Crime Typologies

The NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOCSAR) regularly collects and publishes data on criminal offending and Court outcomes in NSW.

The rate of crime per capita in regional NSW is significantly higher than in Sydney. In 2023, the property crime rate was 59% higher in regional NSW compared to Greater Sydney, while the violent crime rate was 57% higher.

Unsurprisingly, the Northern Rivers are not immune or isolated from criminal activity. Types of crime on which the BOSCAR collected date in the 2 years preceding the December 2023 quarterly report include:

  • Homicide offences (Murder, attempted murder, accessory to murder and manslaughter).
  • Assault (Domestic violence and non-domestic violence related).
  • Sexual Offences (Sexual assault, sexual touching and sexual act offences).
  • Abduction and kidnapping.
  • Robbery (without a weapon, with a firearm and with weapon other than firearm).
  • Intimidation, stalking and harassment.
  • Theft (break and enter dwelling, receiving or handling stolen goods, motor vehicle theft, steal from motor vehicle, steal from retail store and fraud).
  • Arson.
  • Drug Offences (possession, supply, cultivation, manufacture and importing).
  • Weapons offences.

The two-year trend in reported criminal incidents in the region saw a 27.8% rise in sexual assault and a 130.1% rise in stealing from retail store offences in the region. However, there has been an observable 27.8% drop in domestic violence related assault over the same period.

The Tweed-Byron Police District social media page regularly provide updates on events such as natural disasters, evolving events relating to public safety and road closures. It also publishes appeals for information in relation to ongoing investigations and missing persons in the area.

The NSW-Queensland Border is also a road transport thoroughfare and the M1 is one of the country’s most commonly used arterial thoroughfares for road freight transportation, as is the New England Highway which crosses the border to the region’s west.

NSW Police, Transport for NSW and the National Heavy Vehicle Regulator are together responsible for detecting traffic and regulatory offences to ensure the safety of truck drivers and all road users travelling in the region. Breaches often result in Court proceedings.

Legal Institutions

The Law School at Southern Cross University has been operating out of the Law School in Lismore and providing tertiary education to future lawyers since 1996. The academic faculty includes, as its current Dean of Law, former lawyer, author and Local Court Magistrate David Heilpern.

The Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), Legal Aid NSW and the Aboriginal Legal Service (NSW/ACT) have regional offices based in Lismore. Jason Watts, Public Defender, also has chambers in Lismore.

The Balund-a Program is an innovative statewide diversionary program which operates out of Tabulam, approximately 125 km’s west of Byron Bay. Following acceptance into the program following a Court referral, participants participate in structed programs within an Indigenous education and culturally sensitive framework to reduce the likelihood of reoffending.

The Clarence Correctional Centre opened in 2020 and is located 12km south of Grafton. It has 1,700 beds, making it the largest prison in Australia. The former Grafton Correctional Centre is no longer in use but is a heritage listed centre, with a history dating back to 1862.


It is the role of police to investigate a detect suspected crime in the area in which they operate to ensure the safety of the local community who inhabit that region.

When a person is suspected of having committed a criminal offence, they are charged and issued with a notice to attend Court. It is then then the role of the Court to determine the person’s guilt or innocence.

It is an essential cornerstone of our criminal justice system that when a person is charged and taken before a Court, they are afforded the opportunity to engage legal representatives and to challenge and test the allegation brought against them.

In circumstances where a plea of guilty is entered or an offence is proven, it is the role of the Court, and the legal representatives in the case, to ensure a fair and proportionate sentence is imposed.

Hugo Law Group has been operating in the area and providing high quality legal representation since opening its Northern NSW Office in February 2024. We regularly appear for persons charged with criminal offences at Courts in Tweed, Lismore, Grafton and the surrounding Northern Rivers region.

Should you or someone you know be charged with an offence, it is essential you receive legal advice at any early stage. To discuss your options, call Hugo Law Group in Northern NSW (02 5552 1902), to make an appointment to speak to one of our lawyers.

Damien Mahon
Senior Associate
Hugo Law Group – Northern NSW